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City, suburban designs could be bad for your health

02 May 2003 by AL

After reading this article (link credit = Jeff Veen), I got to thinking about how valuable walking is. I remember my swedish boyfriend slamming me for driving my car a couple blocks to the supermarket; “You americans are so lazy, it´s unbelievable!” He proceeded to give me this long lecture which ended up in a fight: I WAS NOT LAZY. I went to the gym 5 times a week and jogged, it was just that I had to buy some groceries and couldn´t schlepp all those groceries home on foot. I thought he was just being a jerk.

Today living in Germany, I often schlepp my groceries on foot the same distance, and I never forgot that fight. I have to hear this again and again at social gatherings, how lazy americans are. On one hand, most of our cities were built after the discovery of the automobile, and are therefore not human-friendly but car-friendly. On the other hand, when we do have the oppertunity to walk somewhere, we drive instead out of habit. In the US, our streets are wider, paking lots are bigger, most stores are cut off from residential areas, we lack pedestrian-friendly town centers and many cities lack enough sidewalks and bikelanes.

Have our city planners in the US screwed us out of a healthy lifestyle? What would be your ideal city plan?

33 comments so far (Post a Comment)

02 May 2003 | indi said...

First of all, welcome Alisha as the new guest poster. I'm glad it's you.

In a way I think we make up for our laziness when we hike through the malls. I think an ideal city plan would put lots of parks and woods in the city limits. There should be zoning for grocery stores in neighborhoods but the megastores should be pushed to the outskirts. I remember as a kid walking to the store with my Grandmother to get groceries.

But the driving everywhere isn't just from laziness. It has a lot to do with the go go go work work work hyper-productive lifestyle many of us have fallen into. Who has time to walk to the store anymore? Sad, isn't it ...

02 May 2003 | seth said...

Nine months ago I moved from the sprawling front range of Colorado to the city / village of Amsterdam and was struck by the biker / pedestrian friendliness. Amsterdam's layout encourages mothers to add a seat to their bike for the children (seen as many as three kids plus mom) rather than go for a bigger car. The resulting increase in physical activity shows in the waistlines of the inhabitants as well - though I believe that the rate of heart disease is just as high due the the excessive cheese and meat consumption.

02 May 2003 | Steven Garrity said...

Before replacing my last car, I tried my best to look at alternatives. I could walk to work, but it would be about a 45 minute walk each way, and I'm just not doing to commit that much time every day. Cycling is a more realistic option, but in Eastern Canada where I live, there are a good 5 months of the year when you do NOT want to be on a bike. The result, I now own a car.

My house is in a pretty good location - I walk to the bank and grocery store, but my office is still on the other side of town. We're in the process of looking for new office space now and proximity to the majority of employees is turning out to be a key attribute.

02 May 2003 | Steven Garrity said...

Pardon the double post, but it occurs to me that despite the location of my office, the fact that I'm able to walk to most other places I need to go is a result of one of the key points in the article. I live in a mixed-use area. Within 4 (small) blocks of my house, there residential areas, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, video stores, and all kinds of other uses.

See Jane Jacobs for more.

02 May 2003 | hurley#1 said...

First of all, welcome Alisha as the new guest poster. I'm glad it's you.


One way cities can help promote healthier lifestyles is by making parking scarce and expensive. I lived near Boston for 10 years but only took my car into the city about five times during that period because the chore of finding a free parking space was so time-consuming and frustrating. I once drove around for 45 minutes just trying to find a place to put my car. It was much easier to just take the T (the metro) and walk from the nearest stop.

A lot of cities in the States are working on making their downtowns more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. It's easier in the east and midwest where many of the cities were designed before the automobile. Some cities in the west, like Seattle and Portland, are very bikeable and walkable; others like Los Angeles and Phoenix are not.

There's a movement afoot in the US called "Smart Growth" that aims to promote more thoughtful urban planning; it is making headway in some cities and suburbs around the country and receives support from the Federal and state governments. Find out more at

Mixed residential and commercial areas work well for promoting a more active lifestyle, as do small towns -- people can walk or bike for pretty much all their needs. Most suburbs are terrible: you have to drive to get anything, and the car culture is strongest there.

As far as laziness is concerned there are a number of culprits acting at the same time: I'm sitting here in front of my computer composing this post instead of riding my bike, for example. My girlfriend's 13-year-old daughter spends 4-5 hours a day instant-messaging her friends and another few hours talking to them on the phone. She has no interest in exercise, and wouldn't even join us for a 10km walk last Sunday. People buy books from instead of walking to a local bookstore. People watch sports on TV instead of getting off their couch and going to the gym for a game of hoops with their friends. Lethargy promotes more lethargy...if you get used to just sitting around you're more apt to take the car to the corner store than to walk.

A friend of mine in Vermont lives off the grid, and he hooked up a bike generator to run the TV. If he wants to watch television he has to ride his bike at the same time. I like that idea.

02 May 2003 | Don Schenck said...

Alisha, I'd walk a mile to be with you! :-)

There was a great show on PBS (my tax dollars at work) about planning. One part discussed zoning laws in the United States, and how they work against intelligent and well thought-out design. Has something to do with "freedom".

They compared, I believe, Pittsburgh and London. It was eye-opening.

The planned community; I love the idea.

02 May 2003 | Mike Beltzner said...

Although it's tempting to, city planners can't be entirely blamed for the rampant urban (or more accurately, suburban) sprawl in North America. Parents - perhaps greedily - wanted their children to enjoy some of the benefits of country life: a place to run, a park to play in, an evening without sirens and street noises. However, these parents were largely unwilling to leave the city for good - that's where their jobs were, and where the action and excitement was. Thus the suburb was born, allowing people to commute into cities and eschew urban density for their very own white picket fence and cookie cutter 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath houses with asphalt driveways.

Sadly, however, governments were unwilling to invest in public transit as heavily as they did in roadway systems, likely due to the fact that roads were good for encouraging commerce, and public transit was good for discouraging consumer growth in the roaring car industry of the mid 20th century. So we ended up with ever expanding rings of suburbs and no easy way for people to get to and from the city core without cars.

The strip mall, bane of the 70s, was intended to provide some residential area shopping facilities, but the damage had already been done. People had cars to get to and from the city, so they used them to get to and from the strip malls. Soon they abandoned strip malls to drive the extra five minutes to get to larger stores with more selection, and from there we got to the "big box" stores, and the new gargantuan form of strip mall: an enormous parking lot surrounded by big box stores where people drive from one side of the lot to the other as they go from store to store.

Some cities avoided this fate through the luck of geography. New York, for example, continues to have a high degree of urban density and arguably more walking traffic than any city in America. Small neighbourhoods of 10 or 20 blocks exist, and within those areas residents become very familiar with local businesses and stores that provide them with access to immediate consumer needs. Aside from the absurdly wealthy, most New Yorkers will use public transit (and in NYC, taxis sort of count as public transit) to get around for long distances, then walk the final mile. In Canada, Montreal is similar, and it seems that both these cities have ended up this way simply because it was impossible to ring them with interminable suburban areas due to the fact that they are on islands.

LA is often citied as an example of a city with terrible urban sprawl, and I'd propose Toronto as its Canadian counterpart. That's where I live now, and its public transit and roadway systems are inadequate for moving the population between suburb and city core every day, resulting in horrible traffic and the smoggiest air in Canada.

All, ironically, stemming from a desire to get away from "the big city."

02 May 2003 | fajalar said...

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. Land of, "If I can see my neighbour I am too close." I was able to walk to elementary school, but after that it was drive, drive, drive. Bus service was so-so. Didn't have school bus service in high school.

So for 17 years the habit of driving to get somewhere was built in me. And it is entirely attributed to the layout of the city.

I have also live in Portland ( city planning), Eugene ( city planning), and Ashland ( city planning), Oregon. All walkable/bikeable cities. When I lived in NW Portland, I didn't have a car and didn't leave a 10 block radius for 6 weeks one time. It's amazing all the things you realize/notice about teh world when you have to walk.

Now in Central Illinois. Thankfully we live in an old neighbourhood now, after living in 4 other areas of town. This is the only place that is walkable so far. But I still can't walk to work or the store.

My wife grew up in Eugene, Oregon so walking and biking for her is second nature. I still grab the keys out of habit for a trip to the bakery... which is 3 blocks away. But it's getting better. Each Saturday morning my 2-year-old and I walk to the bakery for starters. And that is the best part of the week.

02 May 2003 | fajalar said...

D'oh! Sorry, alisha. Great first topic! Looking forward to the merry, merry month of May. :)

02 May 2003 | sherri n said...

I lived for several years in Manhattan and I walked almost everywhere. Unless something was thirty or more blocks away, I would not take the subway. One of the great things about New York City is that most of it was built pre-car and the space is so tight, it discourages car ownership. You don't see too many fat Manhattanites.

But out here in the 'burbs, a car is a necessity. I don't know what the town planners were thinking, because like many communities around here, our town lacks a distinct street grid. There are a few through streets with an elaborate series of cul de sacs that branch off from them—much like a tree. Because of this, the only practical way to get around from town to town is to take the freeway—or streets that might as well be freeways, making pedestrian or bike travel dangerous.

If city/town planners would only work together with neighboring communities in street planning, rather than laying streets by housing development, getting around would be much easier.

Where my mother lives in a new development out west, one's house is a fortress far removed from commercial areas. The nearest grocery store is at least 3 miles away from the housing development, along a street that might as well be a freeway with a token sidewalk. Once you get to the store, it is well set back from the street to accomodate a mammoth parking lot. It's completely designed for cars. Of course, everyone out there is fat.

As population densities increase, we need to start thinking about building towns on a smaller scale again—on a human scale, not a automobile scale. Much of America's weight problem stems from driving too much.

02 May 2003 | alisha said...

thanks guys, for the words of kindness :-)
Alisha, I'd walk a mile to be with you! :-)
not 10???? ;-)

I did some work for a small developer who develops residential areas based on the Feng shui concept; no cul de sacs or dead ends because it blocks energy flow and creates ill will among residents.

Seth, your story sounds like mine; from Colorado to N. Europe. I love A-dam - it´s two hours from my house and we go there often in the summer.

02 May 2003 | SU said...

Funny that Jeff Veen's original pointer references my hometown of Boulder (technically part of that sprawling Front Range to which seth refers above).

Even in this town where driving your car usually takes longer than riding your bike, people (especially college students) insist on driving most places. It's a shame -- these same people make sure to carve out an hour or more each day for exercise they could just as easily get by riding their bike or by walking. You see it all the time -- students and others who drive to trailheads, run 45 minutes on the packed trails, and drive back home. And yet everything is so accessible, they would have no problem linking up a few roads to reach the same trails on foot.

But it could be worse here, as Jeff Veen mentions. Go to nearby towns of Littleton or Golden and you'll see hardly anyone walking (unless they are homeless or nearly so). The structure of these towns -- residential areas segregated from shopping areas, shopping areas removed from the office parks -- does not lend itself to anything more than the commuter lifestyle.

02 May 2003 | brian said...

this is a great thread btw. I grew up in Miami, FL and you CAN'T walk most places. Everything is either too spread apart, or if you do manage to live in a neighborhood with amenities w/in walking distance, chances are it will be 90 degrees, and you will get there soaking wet from sweating or rain.
Then there is the public transport, which is abismal. I remember only taking public transportation about a dozen times in the last decade. Whereas, within a week of staying in london for vacation, i'd easily ridden the tube more than twice that many times. just goes to show you the power of congested-living.

02 May 2003 | cindy said...

I'm a procrastinating, lazy American and it pisses me off.

There's something about knowing that you can get somewhere you need to be in 5 minutes by car, that prevents us from planning ahead and allowing the time it would take to walk there in 15 or 20. It's the immediacy of our culture on top of poor city planning that prevents me from walking to work every day. I live approximately 5 blocks from where I work. (Yes, 5.) And I'm embarrassed to say that I drive about 75% of the time. My commute in the car lasts all of 2 minutes. I think about it every, stinking morning - "Why the hell am I not walking?” But there are a thousand different reasons (er, excuses), "I'm late, I don't want to be even later”,” I might need to run an errand later in the day”,” The weather is too bad”,” These shoes aren't made for walking that part where there isn't sidewalk", etc. Now, I do walk to the grocery store and bank quite frequently, but that's in the evenings or on weekends when I have "time to spare."

I remember coming back from studying over at Cambridge in '97 and swearing I was going to sell my car and walk everywhere. I hadn't driven for months, was in incredible shape, and I felt great about not driving unnecessarily. But I was in the habit of allowing 30 minutes to walk where I needed to be. Now, when I know the movie starts at 7:10, I hop in the car at 7:00. Sad.

And although I do live in a city that is very bike friendly, there are not adequate sidewalks for walking. I would hope that if the city were laid out to be more "walking friendly" I would make more of an effort.

02 May 2003 | Don Schenck said...

No way I'd drive all over!

I'd get a Segway! ;-)

02 May 2003 | Benjy said...

This is exactly one of the reasons I left Atlanta and moved back to Chicago. Atlanta was just a giant sprawl of stripmalls, subdivisions, apartment complexes and office parks -- each cut off from everything else by 4 lane roads and no sidewalks. Now living in Lincoln Park, I love being able to walk to nearly anything I could possibly imagine (except for work). However, it is nice having a car to haul groceries, etc.

02 May 2003 | MrBlank said...

"However, it is nice having a car to haul groceries, etc."

Yes, indeed. I shop once a week and that's too much to carry for the five miles back home. Maybe if there were a store closer to me I'd shop more often.

I would love to be able to ride my bike or walk to work, but it's all 4 lane roads with no sidewalks and crazy drivers. It's so much safer to drive. I do carpool, even though it doesn't help with my waist.

02 May 2003 | stone said...

The tricky part of moving groceries from shop to home by foot instead of by car is that you have to make a trip nearly every day. I suppose that's not too difficult for the Europeans with their 8 hour workdays and 2-month vacations, but more problematic for the lazy Americans with the 10+ hour workdays and two-week vacations.

03 May 2003 | alisha said...

actually not stone. Germans have a similar "prove-yourself-10+workdays". I admit it´s not as extreme as in the US, but many of my friends are expected to work until the job is done, not until 5:00 pm. And stores stay open only until 6:00 pm (and until 8:00 pm in major city centers) so you have no oppertuntiy to buy groceries during the week. This fact really boils my blood. But there´s lots of talk about extending the hours again. there´s hope...
"Funny that Jeff Veen's original pointer references my hometown of Boulder..."
My husband was super impressed with Boulder´s center and disappointed by everything surrounding it.

03 May 2003 | Steve said...

This brings to mind two weeks I spent in Houston. I was on training for a new job and headquarters was roughly a block from a small strip mall with a few eateries.

When I went out for lunch, it made sense to me to walk to the mall. It was only a block, after all. Even in scorching Houston summer weather it's not a big deal.

However, the rest of the people in the course thought I was crazy for walking. Reasons for driving:

It's faster.
You're in an air conditioned car.

Well for some weird reason I always reached the mall before they did and was no more sweaty than the four people who crammed themselves into their toaster oven car.

I was also a weird one because I walked the four flights to the classroom while everyone else crammed into the elevator.

To cap it, everyone complained about their waistlines. Disconnect, I say.

05 May 2003 | Tim said...

If this topic interests you, check out the book " The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler. He chronicles how the American landscape developed, and identified traits going as far back as Puritan times that influenced the development of the land. It's an entertaining read, and you'll never look at the roadside landscape the same way after you read it.

05 May 2003 | Nerdy Mc-Writes-A-Lot said...

I live in a "planned community town".

The closest grocery store to me is a 10 minute drive... probably 5+ miles.

Am I going to walk 3+ hours (round trip) to get as many groceries as I can carry in my backpack?

I don't think so.

So... I have a bike, right? Am I going to bike it so I can get run over by other motorists, and yet carry not much more than I could by walking?

Ah.... no.

American cities (unless you live in some major metropolitan cities like NYC) are NOT designed to be traversed on foot.

Everywhere I can walk, I walk. Everywhere I can't walk, I drive.


05 May 2003 | Urbanchords said...

Here are a few more reason why American is dependant on the car, like a drug. Not in any particular order.

Brown vs. Board of Education
During a racist time, many well off families fled to the new sub-urban areas with the bright new schools and brand new homes. Leaving those who could not afford to move, stuck in the city. Which is now partially vacant.

National Highway Act
Thanks to President Eisenhower, we have the great interstate system. You know for national safety. So we can get out of town in case of nuclear attack. No matter that it allowed people to move further away from the urban core and commute from the sub-urban areas. Which then attracted other businesses and jobs to where the people are.

Car/Tire Industry
In the 40's and 50's many of the car manufactures and the tire industry bought all the trolley lines and urban mass transit systems. They then bankrupted them, which then forced all of us to buy a car and drive it everywhere.

Great Depression
During the great depression, many cities were unable to maintain their downtown areas. With the dis-investment street crumbled, building falling down, and infrastructure fell apart. This left a great distaste to many people and caused them to move out to the "clean and safe" country side (a.k.a. sub-urbia).

G.I. Bill
After our G.I.'s came back from WWII, then were awarded certain privileges from government. One of those were low interest rate on new home construction. So million of service people come back to the US, got a new home and a college education.

This is only a start. I could go into more, but these are some of the key issues.

If you want some more information, check out the book Suburbian Nation

Or go to Congress for the New Urbanism. Smart growth is nice, but neither one of them have really figure out how to change the mentality of Americans.

05 May 2003 | Steve said...

The whole mentality of driving everywhere, even when one could walk, seems to be pretty firmly baked into American culture. Want good evidence? Go to a suburban fast food restaurant during the lunch rush, and note how long the drive-through line is, and then look at how sparse the business at the counter inside is. There's a perception amongst many people that being in the car = saving time, even when getting out of the car for a few minutes would get them closer to their goal in less time.

05 May 2003 | hurley#1 said...

Here are a few more reason why American is dependant on the car, like a drug.

Another one is the Internet, which allows a growing number of people to become telecommuters who work for big-city companies and earn big-city salaries but live in rural, semi-rural, or exurban locations where they typically have to drive for miles to get anything.

On the other hand, the internet also allows for things like online banking, which may reduce the number of car trips to the bank for routine transactions such as account transfers.

06 May 2003 | Steve said...

Let's not forget that there are good reasons - or at least ones that make a lot of sense - behind the prevalence of cars instead of public transport in the US.

The first and most obvious is that, aside from a few pockets, this is a huge and very sparsely-populated country. It's the primary reason rail travel has largely gone by the wayside outside of high-density corridors like DC-Boston. The easy availability of space in a place like Colorado as opposed to, say, the Düsseldorf/Cologne/Dortmund/Essen corridor in Germany, made it very easy and tempting for people to spread out and, therefore, need cars to get around. Remember, we've really only learned about the negative effects of such growth patterns relatively recently (last 30-40 years, whereas the impetus to that sort of development began 50-70 years ago).

Also, many of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the country were small, almost backwater-like cities even 20-30 years ago, and even if they had grown in a less sprawly manner, the costs of public transport systems by that time had become extremely expensive. Phoenix has doubled a few times over in the last 30 years; building public transport would have cost billions and billions of dollars. Same thing could be said for Denver, Seattle, Portland (although they're still small enough, and their geographic growth is restricted, that they have been able to build one of the better public transport networks in the States), Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, LA, San Diego, etc.

07 May 2003 | Urbanchords said...


Now you are actually talk about the problem of funding for mass transit. Consider this, the airline and highway system get billions of dollars a year in federal money while Amtrak has to survive on mere millions.

There is a lot of talk around the country about high speed rail. For example Indiana the other day passed legislation for help finance a study. Not the real deal, but it is a start. There is a big push for a Midwest high speed rail system, with Chicago as its hub. Linky Linky

I also like the idea of using the money we tax gas with to fund alternate transportations. Like how the tax on cigarettes goes to fight people from smoking.

07 May 2003 | Steve said...

Now you are actually talk about the problem of funding for mass transit. Consider this, the airline and highway system get billions of dollars a year in federal money while Amtrak has to survive on mere millions.

Not following your point here. The fact that there is more funcing for highways, for example, can be attributed to the simple fact that there are a hell of a lot more highways than railways. Simple funding disparities doesn't prove anything.

There are valid points to be made, however. One is that Amtrak could end up going the way of the dodo because Congress keeps insisting that it make a profit. Well, even in countries with very heavy train usage, like Germany and France, the railroads lose money. Passenger rail is not a profitable business, anywhere in the world (some small lines are exceptions). But, the public good is good enough that it warrants public support. It would be nice if that message would sink in here.

Regarding Midwest high-speed rail: I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime, and I'm only 33. And, no, I'm not exaggerating. They were talking about "plans" and studies for high-speed rail a dozen years ago when I was in college in Minneapolis. They kept talking about it half a dozen years ago when I worked for the very Indiana legislature that approved money for a study. They talked about it a couple years ago when I was living in Chicago. Apparently they're still talking about it. They never get anywhere, and I'm not optimistic they will. It's an idea that makes a lot of sense, but it's not going to get anywhere without the federal government making it a priority.

By the way, I don't think the idea of using gas taxes to fund other transportation alternatives is ever going to fly. People still spend most of their time on roads, and want them to be in reasonable shape. And, anyway, if the success of the cigarette tax approach is any indication, it'll fail miserably. Cigarette tax rates and smoking rates have no correlation. In fact, most of the time, high cig taxes simply push people to the black and gray markets.

08 May 2003 | Don Schenck said...

I don't believe this issue can be addressed by any single government action. Not even several government actions. It would require a massive, massive change in thinking about government, society, the whole shebang.

It's about a sense of community, which I believe is minimized whenever "government" gets involved.

True, policies can affect this. But more important is what is in your heart. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" is still a great idea.

14 May 2003 | Paul Rogan said...

Oooh, this really bothers me in Australia. Being a young and vast country Australians have fallen head over heels with the car industry. The result is a number of cities with the same area as that of London but only a third of the population. Public transport has fallen by the wayside and many plans for fast rail have been scrapped. The excuse is always that because we are so large we have to have them and yet Aussies are becoming as lazy as everyone else. Sydney is the one example where being based on an older unplanned layout due to geography, space etc the east part of Sydney has excellent public transport in the form of ferries etc but as soon as you head out east the congestion is a nightmare. Same in Melbourne (my hometown). The possibilities in Melbourne at least are great with respect to Public transport because we still have a viable tram system(rail car) just not enough of it and the urban planners havent taken into consideration the sharing of roads by trams and cars whereby they get in each others way making peak hour a horror and thereby discouraging people from using public transport and moving back into urban areas...its a vicious cycle that will become a massive problem if something isnt done about it soon.

14 May 2003 | Paul Rogan said...

Oopps double post sorry...I mean when you head out west in Sydney.....

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